Anterior Core Training
by Michael Boyle Michael Boyle’s StrengthCoach.com
Who do we believe? The strength guys say something like “forget
doing abs, just do heavy squats and deadlifts”. Don’t even say the
word core around these guys. The functional guys say “lying down is
not functional”. The functional guys seem to be against any core
training not done standing. If we proceeded logically we would see
that both groups, the strength guys and the functional guys, at least
agree that all good core training is done standing. As usual, I disagree
with both parties.
In my continued pursuit of unpopularity I’m going to disagree with
both the functional guys and the strength crowd. I know the t-nation
reader is saying “but you are a functional guy”. Not true. Actually, I’m
a results guy. I’m a best practices guy. Yes, my first book was called
Functional Training for Sports but, I think some of the proponents of
functional training have gone too far and, I’m not the only one. I got
an email recently from Matt Nichol, strength and conditioning coach for
the Toronto Maple Leafs. Matt said “I feel like I have to apologize
these days for actually trying to get my guys strong”.
Truth is everybody has their own definition of functional training. Mine
is the application of functional anatomy to training. This means I’m
going to take what I know about anatomy and apply it what I know
about training. The important thing is I’m not going to forget or
dispose of what I know about training. I still think that one leg
exercises are more functional then two leg exercises because we move
on one leg at a time. I still think dumbbells are more functional than a
bar because of the unilateral nature of dumbbells. We are unilateral
machines. Face it. With that said, I still believe in lifting weights. I
want my athletes to be strong, and to be strong you have to lift heavy
stuff. Reaching with and or waving a five lb. dumbbell in three planes
of motion is not training. It might be warm-up but, it’s not training in
However, this article isn’t about the function debate but rather about
training the anterior core, the abs. I think there is a compromise
between the functional guys and the strength guys. The key to getting
the strength crowd to listen might be getting them to realize that this
doesn’t come from me but rather from one of their own courtesy of t-
From the great Dan John:
“I love those damn five dollar ab wheels. I loved them when they
came out in the sixties, I loved them when they returned with the
advent of the Internet, and I love them as my favorite ‘anterior chain’
Guess what, I agree with Dan. However, we have a small problem, we
need a progression. Ab wheel rollouts are tough. Too tough. That’s the
reason I abandoned them years ago. Many of my athletes got
exceptionally sore or, were unable to hold a stable lumbar spine. In
fact any of my athletes who had any abdominal issues ( previous
strains etc.) were actually told by me to never do them under any
How does all this tie into the first paragraph about functional training?
Well, it turns out that this is why I half-agree. The function of the
anterior core is absolutely not flexion. That is where I 100% agree
with the functional guys. When does anyone ever do anything in real
life that looks like a crunch? I agree with the functional folks that lying
on your back doing abs is not only a waste of time but probably
dangerous. Check out Stuart McGill’s work. Not a lot of flexion. Look at
McGill’s method for causing disk damage in a lab setting, repeat
flexion. Ideally we need an anterior core or as Dan says “anterior
chain” exercise that doesn’t involve flexion.
So the key in my mind was to find a progression to get my athletes to
safely do Ab Wheel Rollouts.
Phase 1- Front Planks- If your athletes or clients can’t hold a perfect
plank for 40 secs ( not very long, I know). Start there. Remember a
perfect plank looks like what the person looks like in standing. It’s not
a prone crunch.
Phase 2- Stability Ball Rollouts- The Stability Ball is like a big wheel.
The weaker the athlete the bigger the ball. It is essential that everyone starts withStability Ball Rollouts. I don’t care how strong you think your abs are.
Do yourself a favor and do Stability Ball Rollouts twice a week for the
first three weeks. If you start with a wheel there is a good chance you
will strain your abdominal muscles.
Phase 3- The Ab Dolly
I know, an infomercial piece of equipment in a t-nation article. I’m
sure a few of the meatheads will call me all kinds of names on the
forums. ( Note to meatheads. Sticks and stones…). Ab Dollies are a bit
pricy but make a nice transition to the wheel. I am all about
progressions that keep my athletes healthy. In fact at Boston
University I purchased 8 Ab Dollys. The Ab Dolly makes the transition
from the stability ball to the wheel much easier. It’s a physics thing.
The Ab Dolly allows the user to be on the elbows first to get a short
Phase 4- The Wheel
If you bought an Ab Dolly you really don’t need a wheel. Simply grasp
the sides of the Ab Dolly with your hands to lengthen the lever. I like
the wheel better as you get better diagonals when you get more
advanced but, for phase 3 it really doesn’t matter. The key is that the
moving piece is now a full arms length away.
Phase 5- Val Slide or Slideboard Rollouts
The Valslide or Slideboard now adds a frictional component. Instead of
the wheel rolling bodyweight creates drag. This again makes the
exercise harder, particularly the concentric or return portion. You
actually have to pull yourself back in.
Phase 6- Bar Rollouts
I almost left these out but they actually work as a progressive
resistance exercise. Start with an empty bar and add 10 lbs. a week.
The bar rollouts don’t change the eccentric nature of the exercise but,
boy can they change the concentric.
The bottom line is that Dan John is right and all the “just do heavy
squats and deadlifts” guys are wrong. If you never intend to run a sprint or throw a ball, you core musculature may be fine without direct ab work.
However, there is no denying the role of the abdominal
musculature in pelvic control when the body is in motion. The
abdominal musculature or core muscles must act to prevent the spine
from going into extension. In order to do this a specific stress must be
applied. The anterior core progression gets the body to use the
muscles the right way and does it in a way that can keep anyone